Dismantling a ‘Libertarian’ Argument for Restricting Immigration

Few topics seem to trigger strong emotions like the question of immigration.  The body of classical liberal and libertarian philosophy is full of people who espouse laissez-faire positions on the movements of goods and investment across borders, then completely reverse this position when it comes to the free movement of people.  Much of the opposition seems willing to abandon liberty, even as it claims to be promoting liberty.

The Simple Argument in Favor of Open Borders:

I have a right to do business with whomever I want so long as they are willing and able to do business with me.

The Simple Argument in Favor of Open Borders Explained in Greater Detail:

I have a right to do business with whomever I want so long as they are willing and able to do business with me.  So long as that person does not trespass on someone else’s property or steal anyone else’s property in  order to do business with me, no one else has the right to physically restrain me from doing business with them.  As I wrote in an earlier post:

No, when confronted with a person who desires to leave Mexico, purchase a plane ticket from an airline, fly to Atlanta, rent an apartment from a property owner, find employment in a factory, all of which are peaceful transactions that any individual should be free to do, the vast majority of White Nationalists cheerfully and openly call upon others to thwart these peaceful transactions at every turn. They want armed men to prevent him from stepping off the aircraft, from being allowed to rent the property, from being allowed to enter an employment contract with the factory, from driving on public roads, etc. They wish to force all these transactions to be constrained for people who aren’t members of the White race.

When a person considers how limits on immigration are put into effect, one immediately can see that liberty is destroyed, not enhanced by such restrictions.  The armed man preventing an airline from permitting a paying customer from boarding, preventing a man from renting an apartment, or from selling his labor services to a factory is attacking not only the man whom they are trying to keep out of the country, but those with whom that man wishes to do business.  These restrictions inherently involve attacks on liberty.

The ‘Libertarian’ Argument Against Open Borders

An interesting argument is one leveled by Dr Hans-Herman Hoppe:

The relationship between trade and migration is one of elastic substitutibility (rather than rigid exclusivity): the more (or less) you have of one, the less (or more) you need of the other. Other things being equal, businesses move to low wage areas, and labor moves to high wage areas, thus effecting a tendency toward the equalization of wage rates (for the same kind of labor) as well as the optimal localization of capital. With political borders separating high- from low-wage areas, and with national (nation-wide) trade and immigration policies in effect, these normal tendencies—of immigration and capital export—are weakened with free trade and strengthened with protectionism. As long as Mexican products—the products of a low-wage area— can freely enter a high-wage area such as the U.S., the incentive for Mexican people to move to the U.S. is reduced. In contrast, if Mexican products are prevented from entering the American market, the attraction for Mexican workers to move to the U.S. is increased.

Domestic free trade is what is typically referred to as laissez-faire capitalism. In other words, the national government follows a policy of non-interference with the voluntary transactions between domestic parties (citizen) regarding their private property. The government’s policy is one of helping to protect its citizens and their private property from domestic aggression, damage, or fraud (exactly as in the case of foreign trade and aggression).

According to proponents of unconditional free immigration, the U.S. qua high-wage area would invariably benefit from free immigration; hence, it should enact a policy of open borders, regardless of any existing conditions, i.e., even if the U.S. were ensnarled in protectionism and domestic welfare. Yet surely, such a proposal strikes a reasonable person as fantastic. Assume that the U.S., or better still Switzerland, declared that there would no longer be any border controls, that anyone who could pay the fare might enter the country, and, as a resident then be entitled to every “normal” domestic welfare provision. Can there be any doubt how disastrous such an experiment would turn out in the present world?. The U.S., and Switzerland even faster, would be overrun by millions of third-world immigrants, because life on and off American and Swiss public streets is comfortable compared to life in many areas of the third world. Welfare costs would skyrocket, and the strangled economy disintegrate and collapse, as the subsistence fund—the stock of capital accumulated in and inherited from the past—was plundered. Civilization in the U.S. and Switzerland would vanish, just as it once did from Rome and Greece.

Put differently, while someone can migrate from one place to another without anyone else wanting him to do so, goods and services cannot be shipped from place to place unless both sender and receiver agree. Trivial as this distinction may appear, it has momentous consequences. For free in conjunction with trade then means trade by invitation of private households and firms only; and restricted trade does not mean protection of households and firms from uninvited goods or services, but invasion and abrogation of the right of private households and firms to extend or deny invitations to their own property. In contrast, free in conjunction with immigration does not mean immigration by invitation of individual households and firms, but unwanted invasion or forced integration; and restricted immigration actually means, or at least can mean, the protection of private households and firms from unwanted invasion and forced integration. Hence, in advocating free trade and restricted immigration, one follows the same principle: requiring an invitation for people as for goods and services.

In contrast, the advocate of free trade and free markets who adopts the (conditional) free immigration position is involved in intellectual inconsistency. Free trade and markets mean that private property owners may receive or send goods from and to other owners without government interference. The government stays inactive vis-à-vis the process of foreign and domestic trade, because a willing (paying) recipient exists for every good or service sent, and hence all locational changes, as the outcome of agreements between sender and receiver, must be deemed mutually beneficial. The government’s sole function is that of maintaining the trading process (by protecting citizen and domestic property). However, with respect to the movement of people, the same government will have to do more in order to fulfill its protective function than merely permit events to take their own course, because people, unlike products, possess a will and can migrate. Accordingly, population movements, unlike product shipments, are not per se mutually beneficial events because they are not always —necessarily and invariably—the result of an agreement between a specific receiver and sender. There can be shipments (immigrants) without willing domestic recipients. In this case, immigrants are foreign invaders, and immigration represents an act of invasion. Surely, a government’s basic protective function includes the prevention of foreign invasions and the expulsion of foreign invaders.

This argument suffers from a critical flaw: it blurs the distinction between invasion, where someone trespasses on the property of another, and that of legitimate sales of land or rental of land.  If my neighbor chooses to sell his land to a person from Mexico, it is a voluntary trade between two individuals and not a unilateral expropriation of property.  A squatter who seizes the house can be dealt with as a trespasser.  Where the criminal comes from – Canada, West Virginia, or from the immediate neighborhood – is absolutely irrelevant.  The notion that someone should be prevented from entering a locale because they might trespass in the future or have a higher time preference than others is ridiculous.

To apply Dr. Hoppe’s analysis to trade goods, a person could unilaterally dump unwanted garbage on the land of another.  Should we then restrict the voluntary trade in bags of garbage between garbage producers, landfill companies and recyclers?  The very question is absurd!

Nor are Dr Hoppe’s predictions of societal collapse given free immigration any more plausible than the dark prediction that allowing women to choose how many children they should bear will lead to the extinction of the human race, or that allowing people to choose what they study in school will lead to an oversupply of engineers and an undersupply of farmers.

Furthermore, Dr Hoppe is being disingenuous – the Roman and Greek civilizations did not collapse due to open immigration.  To the contrary! Constantine’s decree that permanently tied farmers and their descendants to whatever patch of land they were farming at the time – in effect the most restrictive prohibition on human migration that one can conceive of – is widely credited with wrecking the Roman economy to the point where the collapse of the empire was inevitable (It should be noted that the collapse of the Roman empire had many midwives).  Greece, on the other hand, collapsed due to not open migration, but Roman conquest.  Roman soldiers arrived in Greece commanded by officers who wished to plunder the province, exact revenge for Greek military interventions in Italy, and make a name for themselves in their drive to advance along the cursus honorum.  These are hardly the actions of people who wished to live in Greece in order to partake of the opportunities for living a fulfilling productive life there.

In the United States, 5% of the human race has enjoyed the right to move freely for several decades now.  The polities they live range from dirt poor places such as the backwoods of West Virginia to the exclusive gated mansions of Florida.  Yet society does not collapse!  The underclasses of New Orleans do not set up squatter camps in Central Park!

Forced Integration

Dr Hoppe repeatedly describes two undesirable outcomes of an open borders policy.  The first, invasion, we have dispensed with.  The second, forced integration is far more interesting.  What is forced integration?  It occurs when a person is compelled to do business or associate with someone whom they do not want to associate with.  This can be the result of compulsion, as occurs when – under the dictates of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – a shop owner is no longer permitted to exclude people from his shop based on the color of their skin and opens his shop to dark skinned people ou of fear of arrest.

However, forced integration can mean that a shop owner is forced by the changes in the demographics of potential shoppers to make the choice between closing down his shop or allowing people he would prefer to exclude into his shop.  In the latter case he is not the victim of violence.  If a racist who wishes to exclude whites from his shop had historically turned a profit,  but due to the passage of time now finds the pool of non-white potential customers no longer supports his business, and concludes that his business would be profitable if it invited whites into the store, then his choice of liquidating his business, expanding his client base, or selling his business is no different than the one faced by his neighbor the cooper, who finds that the invention of something called the 50 gallon drum has resulted in the evaporation of 99% of the demand for barrels and must make drastic changes to his business if he wishes to keep it.

Unless a person lives as an autarchic hermit, he or she has to interact with others to survive.  The need for these interactions opens the possibility that sometimes a person will be confronted by choices or people that are disagreeable.  In a free society, mere disagreeableness does not provide a person with the grounds to intervene in the affairs of others.  A person who wishes to avoid the sound of Spanish is free to decide how much they are willing to pay to ensure they never hear the tongue spoken in their presence.  They may find that the cost is more than they are willing or able to pay.  However, the fact that they find such a thing disagreeable in no way gives them license to aggress against their neighbors.

How Shall the Cat Be Belled?

Dr. Hoppe is very vague as to how restrictions can be enforced in a libertarian manner.  Certainly a rancher in Arizona who has migrant workers trespassing on his property, damaging fences, and fouling his water tanks can legitimately repel the trespassers under a libertarian political order.

But how can a person who lives in North Carolina who finds the sound of Spanish distasteful prevent people from speaking Spanish in her presence?  She could arrange her movements to ensure she stays away from Spanish speakers – a legitimate libertarian response.  But is she tries to prevent Spanish speakers from traveling into stores she frequents, stores whose owners want to welcome them, she must threaten those people with violence – again in violation of libertarian principles.

The State as the Corporation

One interesting justification I’ve heard advanced by people who are sympathetic to Dr Hoppe’s arguments is that the state can be treated as a corporation that owns the public roads, ports etc, and that it can legitimately dictate who is permitted to enter a port, while ejecting unwanted trespassers.  The citizens are then shareholders, and the management is merely choosing, like a restaurant chain, to exclude certain classes of people from its facilities.

This is a seductive argument, until one realizes that in practice it is not the case at all.  IBM could, for example, decide to prevent anarchocapitalists from entering its facilities in Armonk NY.  However, if I were to purchase some land in Armonk, arrange for an airport to be built on it, and fly into the town, IBM would have no cause to physically prevent me from landing on my airstrip. If, on the other hand, I were to by a ranch in Mexico and another in Arizona, build airstrips on both properties and start shuttling passengers between them, the state would still intervene to prevent these flights.

ICE agents have as much moral justification to show up on my Arizona ranch to arrest me and seize my property as agents working for IBM do: none at all.

The Welfare State

Dr Hoppe is correct, though, to fear the consequences of an open borders policy coupled with a generous welfare state.  One need only to look at the examples of France and England to see the consequences of allowing people to immigrate, denying them the ability to earn a living, and offering them a monthly stipend to sit around and do nothing.   Of course, in such societies the problem is not limited to immigration itself, but any form of population growth. Every new baby born to someone living in the country has a similar chance of ending up as a strain on the capital stock of the country.  Banning immigration serves only to prolong the inevitable collapse, and that if one accepts this as justification for preventing people from immigrating into some country, then one must also, to be consistent, be in favor of restricting births of new babies.

But so what?  Why should we expect further limits on liberty for the sole purpose of propping up a hostile political and economic regime?  What loyalty do we owe the sort of state that seeks to create a permanent class of dependent, unemployed and unemployable?  Should we be like the German chaplains who blessed the Wermacht soldiers as they pushed off to loot, pillage and the Ukraine, because it was politically expedient to do so?  Should we sacrifice our principles because they are inconvenient?

We see Dr Hoppe’s approach reflected in the fair weather ‘free market’ economists who are screaming for the state to intervene in an economy that was wrecked by such interventions in the past, simply because they fear the coming storm.  In the end, all they do is prolong the day of reckoning by sacrificing their reputations and credibility.   It is in times of trouble that we must stick to our principles.  They are our compass.  We don’t need a compass on days when the weather is fair, the visibility unlimited, and the seas are calm.  We need our compass most  when the rain pounds down, the waves tower over our masts, for that is when the way forward is the most unclear, and errors of judgment have the most dire consequences.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum – Let justice be done, even though the heavens may fall.

Wrapping Up

All of the ‘harms’ caused by free migration fall into one of two categories:

1) Acts of trespass against legitimate property owners, which should be dealt with after the fact by punishing actual wrongdoers.

2) Acts that are legitimate in a free society that make some people uncomfortable.  The latter are not legitimately the subject of preventative or retributive violence.

Neither of these categories, alone or together, justifies the aggression required to enforce a restrictive immigration policy.  The damage to society done by the actions required to enforce a restrictive immigration policy are far more damaging to the fabric of society and its capital stock than any peaceful migration of people.

Additional Reading
Walter Block and Anthony Gregory’s rejoinder in a fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies is worth reading.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.